Lady’s Smock

Botanical name Cardamine pratensis

Cardamine from Greek “kardamine” for “water cress”.

Lady's Smock
Lady’s Smock

“Karda” is Greek for “heart” (cf “carda”), and “damao” is Greek for “strengthen”.

“pratensis” from Latin meaning “meadow”.

It is part of the large genus “Brassica”, which makes it a relative of mustards.

Lady’s Smock thought to come from the cup shaped flowers, similar to a “smock dress”. These clothes traditionally were worn in the 18th century as a loose outer garment by rural workers such as shepherds. However, the word “smock” was once a slang term for “woman”, and the name may have alluded to certain springtime activities in the meadows! 

Alternative common names are numerous, and include “Cuckoo flower” (flowers when cuckoo starts to sing), “Mayflower”, “Meadow Bittercress”, and “Bread and Milk” (old custom of eating bread and milk for breakfast in the Spring).

The plant is a native to the UK, and likes to grow in moist, well drained ground, with partial shade. It likes humus rich soil.

It has quite round basal leaves, which can be found most of the year. When the flower stem grows in the Spring, the leaves are thin. The flowers are usually a beautiful pale lilac, but can be almost white. Four petals in a cross shape (cruciform) droop and close at night, or during heavy rain.

The leaves taste of hot mustard or wasabi, the flowers of cress, with sweet and hot hints.

It’s uses in herbal medicine are multiple. A tea made with the leaves was often used as a Spring tonic, as it is rich in Vitamin C. It is also an appetite stimulant and digestive aid. It must have been popular amongst the poorer peasants, as they recovered from a hard winter. It was used widely for menstrual disorders, especially heavy periods, and also skin conditions and asthma. Despite the Greek origin of “Cardamine”, I could find no useful link to the treatments of heart conditions.

The flower is the County flower of Cheshire, and is a popular foodplant for “Orange Tip” butterfly caterpillars.

In folklore, “Lady’s Smock” is said to be sacred to fairies. It is unlucky if brought indoors, and for this reason is never used in May Day garlands.

In some parts of the world, this plant is considered a nuisance. I find that hard to believe, but was amused by this unhappy gardener! “Weeding this little pest is decidedly unsatisfying, for when its fully ripe pods are touched, they split open and shoot out their seeds, thus spitefully sowing another crop.” 

I shall leave this piece with a bit of Shakespear’s “Love’s Labors Lost”……………

    When daisies pied and violets blue

    And lady-smocks all silver-white

    And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue

    Do paint the meadows with delight,

    The cuckoo then, on every tree,

    Mocks married men; for thus sings he: 

    “Cuckoo;Cuckoo, cuckoo!” 

    O, word of fear,

    Unpleasing to a married ear!

Simon Papworth

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